By Kavitha Rajagopalan
One week before the U.S. election, I argued that the 45th president should make his or her first official visit to India.
I was so certain that the next U.S. leader would be a former secretary of state with an extensive personal and professional record of action on civil and minority rights that I felt comfortable offering a fairly simple geopolitical analysis: India has been a strategic ally in addressing Islamist militancy in its region and could be a key partner in many other critical global issues this century. But the bitter and contentious election delivered us Donald Trump as our president-elect. And now I want to take back everything I said. A strong allegiance between Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not to be welcomed but feared.
Amid the many pre- and post-election think pieces that located Trump country in rural America and populated it with uneducated white men, many of us watched in bemusement as a small and passionate collection of immigrants and people of color applied their vigor and wealth toward supporting the demagogue. Many of these people had fled oppressive, authoritarian regimes themselves, we marveled, so why would they want to see such a regime here? The widely publicized and foolishly laughed-at Hindus for Trump extravaganza last October (which featured, among other spectacles, a Bollywood-style show pitting U.S. and Indian soldiers against light-saber wielding “terrorists,” images of Trump as an avatar of a Hindu god, and Trump himself lighting a ceremonial oil lamp) points us to a particularly insidious motivator for many Indians both in the U.S. and in India: Islamophobia. Watching these events play out, we should have been worried instead.
As India’s military action in Kashmir continues without any end in sight, nationalistic Islamophobia seems to be reaching a fever pitch in the country. Ostensibly launched to rout Islamist militancy in the long-contested region, India’s latest intervention has been marred by human rights violations and resisted by a growing number of Kashmiris. Meanwhile, Islamophobic and anti-Pakistani sentiment flares daily in Indian news media and pop culture outlets. It is understandable that such a painful and brutal history as India and Pakistan have with each other should trigger high emotions among Indian citizens, but the national leadership hasn’t exactly reined in hysteria the could easily transform into incitement against Muslims, as it has in the past. India has a long and recurring history of communal violence in its cities and, although Modi was officially cleared on suspicions of inciting riots and violence against Muslims in the city of Ahmedabad in 2002 during his term as Chief Minister of the state of Gujrat, a genocide and subsequent pogrom did take place on his watch. This was the culminating moment of the prime minister’s lifelong affiliation with Hindu nationalist organizations and movements. To this day, he has never issued any official apology or publicly expressed any regret or remorse over what happened. The closest he has ever come was in a media interview in which he irritably said he felt “pity” for the Muslims who were murdered, as one might feel at seeing a dog harmed.
Modi rose to national power in 2014 with a campaign that, like Trump’s, spoke to economic anxieties plaguing the country’s middle class in an era of widening inequality and increased cost of living, with no small measure of pride and resentment over what many felt should be the nation’s rightful place in the international order. Like the next American president, his rhetoric hit nationalist notes heavily and saffron-washed the complex Indian social landscape with overtly Hindu language and imagery. India is undoubtedly an important global power, but it still struggles with deeply entrenched human rights abuses and social fissures. It is home to the largest number of enslaved people in the world, high-caste militants regularly unleash horrific acts of violence on Dalits (including Dalit women and children), and hostility toward Muslims is widespread even as few Hindus are informed about the true nature and diversity of India’s Muslim communities.
Modi was one of the first world leaders to offer hearty congratulatory messages to the new president-elect, tweeting, “We look forward to working with you closely to take Indian-US bilateral ties to a new height.” Hindu nationalists in India cheered Trump on throughout 2015 and 2016 and greeted news of Trump’s election with elation, taking to the streets to dance and celebrate. Apparently, members of the ultranationalist and often-militant Hindu Sena offered sweets to a poster of Trump’s face in New Delhi. This convergence is deeply troubling. At the very least, Trump’s election validates the more aggressive Islamophobic elements in the world’s largest democracy, empowering them to conflate Islam with terrorism and justify nationalist acts of violence against a religious minority. At worst, it globalizes and normalizes the unique Hindu nationalist version of anti-Muslim hatred as part of a sleek, internationalized form of Islamophobia increasingly viewed as a global norm and a universal ethic.
Perhaps more than any other diaspora, Indian communities are global and interconnected, and they exist in both real and virtual space. The move toward legitimizing Hindu nationalist Islamophobia in India was troubling enough before we saw it deployed to influence democratic processes in the U.S. and other countries. Where a different 45th president might have been able to embrace India as an ally in fighting Islamist militancy in its neighborhood while also exhorting it to temper violence and hatred toward Indian Muslims or Bangladeshi labor migrants, Trump will not. Not only will he see no distinction between vulnerable Muslim populations in India, Kashmiri resistance fighters, Islamic State militants, Syrian refugees, and suburban Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, he will also fan the flames of Hindu militancy in the country that will soon be home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
Meanwhile, as India struggles through an unnecessary currency crisis (begging one to ask in more paranoid moments if this wasn’t a calculated move toward a state of emergency, which is a state of freedom to any leader with authoritarian tendencies), the U.S. president-elect met last week with three Indian real-estate executives who are building a Trump-branded residential complex in Mumbai. The meeting is one of several incidents that raise serious questions about conflicts of interest in a sitting president potentially using his office to benefit his personal business—or possibly even allowing business deals to enable foreign governments to curry favor with his administration. Modi, who is facing growing pressure to deliver on his 2014 campaign promises of economic growth, job creation, and improved quality of life for all Indians, could use just such a friend.
Of course, a massive number of Indians are concerned about and even fearful of what a Trump presidency means for India and the world as a whole. Author and Indian MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted during the long and bitter night of tallying electoral results that the election had not done a great deal of good for U.S. soft power around the world, and later commented that he was afraid of “negativism” unleashed by the Trump campaign. The Indian intelligentsia he belongs to know of what they speak; over the past two years, they’ve seen significant erosions to free speech and press freedom, along with mounting instances of censorship. But India’s leader and the many xenophobes with authoritarian tendencies in his employ are thrilled. And we should be very, very worried.
Kavitha Rajagopalan is a World Policy Institute fellow and author of Muslims in Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West (Rutgers University Press, 2008).
[Photo courtesy of Jasveer10]